UX – Abuses, Misuses and Misinterpretations of the Term

* This post does not aim to offend real UX engineers, it is just my personal view as a professional developer, based on a 7+ years of experience in the field of web development.

In the era of the highly misused and rather vague term Web 2.0, being a UX engineer (also – expert, guru, developer or whatsoever) has become a quite fashionable occupation.

Unfortunately, neither most of the employers, nor the future UX guru employees do not even have the slightest notion of what stands behind the two letter abbreviation, which soon leads to persisting conflicts between UX persons and developers.

A typical UX job description that may be found in job ads reads:

The company X is looking for a skilled User Experience developer with expert knowledge of PhotoShop, FireWorks or other design software.

And not even a word about usability, accessibility, code semantics and front-end development skills.

UX is not a lonely island in the ocean of web development, but rather a collective term for expert skills in:

– Usability
– Accessibility
– User Interface design
– Strong front-end programming (xhtml, css, javascript) skills
– Code semantics
– Sound knowledge of web standards, best practices and strategies
– Wireframing and prototyping
– User testing

The UX developer with strong design skills is hired after an interview on which developers are not invited, and in a few days the devs receive the first work of the new UX expert – in most of the cases a bulky graphic file with absurd, strange and unusual design, a living hell for the front-end developer, who is responsible to port this Web 2.0 beauty into a beautiful, accessible and usable code.

The first conflict – if the front-end developer is a really experienced professional, he or she asks for a meeting with the UX guru where he talks to him or her and politely advises them to reconsider the design, as it has nothing to do with the good UX practices. The UX person feels offended and tries to defend, and points out exactly those unusual characteristics of his design, which makes it a real piece of Web 2.0 art. Afer a few attemtps, the front-end guy gives up, codes the design, gives the templates to the back-end developers, and finally the application, along with its state-of-the art design and UX is online.

And then come the support tickets from angry customers. Users complain about the unusual layout, complain that they get lost in the sloppy (pardon – Web 2.0) navigation, etc. And guess whom are such support tickets assigned to? To the back-end developers? No, their server code works like a charm. To the UX engineer? Of course, not – he or she is responsible for the design only, and that particular design has been approved for coding from his or her team leader or boss. To the frontend developer? Exactly, right to the point. And everything starts over. The frontend person tries to explain to the UX person the most common web-design strategies, mentions of Jacob Nielsen (I am sure that 70% of those who call themselves UX engineers have never heard of him) and finally, after the usual verbal battle the front-end developer gives up, the back-end guys give up as well, and the compaining customers are assured that the UX issues have been logged in the bug tracking system and will be fixed soon (i.e. never, or close to never).

Next, there comes the moment, when the UX guru, having acquired enough confidence in their misunderstood UX skills decides that the company he or she works for, and especially the evil developers are against him or her and quits. The UX specialist knows that UX is a fashionable occupation and he or she will not remain unoccupied for long.

But the legacy of that UX work remains, and the support tickets keep coming, and soon the team, responsible for the development of the product with the killer Web 2.0 features finds themselves just before a total redesign and reconsideration of the code, its semantics, accessibility, usability, etc. But this time without alleged UX developers and other Web 2.0 gurus.

UX is not an occupation or job description at all. Once more – UX is a collective term for skills that are not studied at school or at university, but acquired at work, the very result of the experience on the web.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting debate!

    I have not worked in enough companies to witness this kind of situation yet. I didn’t know there was such a misunderstanding of the term.

    I must agree these skills are impossible to learn in school, usually web development courses are quite outdated and the truly unique resource for learning those skills is to practice by building website. After a few years, a keen understanding of how this ensemble of skills can produce better interfaces and therefore a better user experience overall.

    Rare are the true UX Engineers (or designers, whatever.)

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